By Youk Chhang
PHNOM PENH — This was my first trip to that town on the Gulf of Thailand renamed after King Norodom Sihanouk in 1958. Because between the civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, I had never had a chance to go there.
As a child growing up in Phnom Penh in the 1960s, the only long trip I had made was going to visit one of my grandmothers who lived in Battambang City. We had gone by train to meet this very modern grandmother who wore makeup and served us coconut dessert made blue and pink with food coloring.
Then, there had been the 1970s and afterward my fleeing the country to a refugee camp in Thailand and finally immigrating to the United States.
And here I was, now that the Cambodian government and political factions had signed the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, serving as an international polling station officer with UNTAC—the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia—and, having flown to Sihanoukville by helicopter, seeing this beautiful beach on the Gulf of Thailand that I had not even known existed in my country.
Over the years, I would go back many times to Sihanoukville that many Cambodians still call Kampong Som—we tend to maintain habits and traditions in this country. Like many companies and NGOs did, I would take the whole team of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) there on special weekends in the 2000s and early 2010s.
Due to many factors, and especially the COVID-19 pandemic, I had not been to Sihanoukville for nearly two years. So to mark the birthday of the late King Norodom Sihanouk—he was born on Oct. 31, 1922—and which is marked by a national holiday, I recently made the trip—it is around 225 kilometers, or 140 miles, from Phnom Penh.
The Sihanoukville I saw was no longer the city I once knew. Here were streets lined with highrises, many used as hotels and casinos and others empty or under construction.
And yet, the hill I had climbed on my first visit those many years ago to better see the shoreline and the sea had not been altered.
But first, let me go back to the Sihanoukville I discovered 29 years ago.
Discovering a lovely town by the sea
This first visit to Sihanoukville had been wonderful, I would even say magical, starting with the Russian pilot who was so excited that he had flown low enough over the gulf for the wheels to splash water.
The town’s population was around 15,000 people in the 1960s. And on that day of September 1992, all we could see was a small town with a huge, huge, long beach. The ocean deep blue, the sky blue. It was like heaven. Going up that mountain and seeing this beautiful landscape, you felt on top of the world. And nobody was there.
After this first visit, I would go by car. As an electoral officer assigned to Kampong Speu Province—I worked for UNTAC until the end of the UN mission in September 1993—I got used to travel by road.
One of the problems at the time was the Khmer Rouge trying to disrupt traffic and communications.
After signing the Paris Peace Agreement in October 1991, Khmer Rouge leaders had broken it and were determined to disrupt the elections. So, they attempted to intimidate people, blocking roads and so on, to prevent them from voting. But they would fail spectacularly: In May 1993, nearly 90 percent of those entitled to vote would cast their ballots.
When I travelled for UNTAC, I had to go on specific days so they could provide us with security, clearing the roads in advance. But civilians did not have access to such services when they were off duty.
Still, on a weekend or some holiday after my first visit, I decided to go to Sihanoukville by car. As I expected, we were stopped by the Khmer Rouge. Back then, people were wearing uniforms to threaten UNTAC employees. So sometimes they looked like Khmer Rouge, sometimes they looked like government soldiers. Whoever they were, they would ask for money. Speaking the language, I was able to negotiate and got through.
As a child living in Phnom Penh, I had only heard of Sihanoukville in geography books at primary school. Beside that one exciting train trip to Battambang City, I had only travelled to Takeo Province to see my other grandmother.
Moreover, the road between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville had been under construction for years in the 1960s. And then, the war had started in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But it was only 30 years later that I realized how little I had seen of my country. Back then, I think that Cambodians were not touring their own homeland. Due to many factors—the economic situation, living conditions, transportation—they were not able to explore their country. So, we did not know much about Angkor or the coastline.
When I was growing up, my father worked full days. I had many siblings for whom mother cooked every day. And on Sunday, we just worried about daily life. I did not know the word vacation; it is only decades later that I would learn the concept.
Like many other Cambodians, I had only heard of Sihanoukville through music and songs. So, I had no idea we had a seaside town when I first saw Sihanoukville.
Beside its beautiful setting, one other reason I wanted to go to Sihanoukville was Jacqueline Kennedy. In the 1960s, then-Prince Sihanouk had named a boulevard after her husband, U.S. President John Kennedy who was assassinated in November 1963. When she came to Cambodia in a private capacity—which was nevertheless seen as diplomatic—in November 1967, then-Prince Sihanouk had her inaugurate the boulevard. As a kid, I had become fascinated by John and Jackie Kennedy. They were the ones who inspired my dream: going to America. Perhaps this also helped me survive the Khmer Rouge.
A harsh reminder of the Khmer Rouge genocide by the beautiful sea
In the decades that followed, I would often return to Sihanoukville, at times making this a weekend or holiday outing for my team at the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
But a visit in 1997 became a reminder that the fear the Khmer Rouge inspired was still very present in the country.
For the holiday weekend of Oct. 31 marking the birthday of King Sihanouk, I had decided to take my family to Sihanoukville. When I arrived in Sihanoukville, there were no people around. At the hotel, the manager told us that a government official was expected. Soldiers and police officers had basically shut down the town for his arrival.
The manager also told us that I could not get the rooms I had reserved even though I had had paid in advance. This was basically the best hotel at the time and the manager could not say no to government officials. The hotel had maybe 10 rooms and they had reserved them all. So, the manager offered us to stay with the hotel staff members in their small rooms.
I left my sister and mother at the hotel and went out on an errand. “When I called my sister later on, she was so scared she could hardly speak. She was trembling on the phone. I asked her what was wrong. “The Khmer Rouge are here,” she said. “The Khmer Rouge are at the hotel.”
It was Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge leader who had defected and joined the Cambodian government in 1996. And my sister was worried for me because I was investigating the Khmer Rouge at DCCam. For me it was like why do they bother my sister? Why are they still a sign of threat to my sister and mother who were their victims?
When I came back to the hotel, there were bodyguards all over but since many knew who I was, they let me in. I went to reassure my mother and sister. We felt in a Khmer Rouge prison again.
Later in the day, I sent Ieng Sary a note, asking to interview him regarding some documents of the Khmer Rouge regime. At 10 pm, his assistant Long Narin told me to come to his room, which I did. We talked for a while. He told me the documents seemed right and invited me to come to Pailin, an area in the western part of Cambodia that was under Sary’s control.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to make sure nobody knocked on the door. It was a feeling of “be prepared to resist and combat” from the Khmer Rouge time. I told myself I would not let anything happen to me again, I would not let the Khmer Rouge touch us. I was getting ready to fight back if something happened.
In the meantime, I wrote down the details of the encounter and sent this to The Cambodia Daily newspaper whose national editor I knew personally. I just wanted to let him what had happened, as a precaution.
I got up at 5:00 am and went downstairs, but the lobby was empty. I had been left a note, which I later passed on to the ECCC—the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, also referred to as Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
In the note, Sary said he would make time for me later. Being so young, how dared I research the Khmer Rouge regime of Democratic Kampuchea, but if I wanted to do so, I should come to Pailin, an area in western Cambodia that he controlled. It was about two or three lines. I read that message 10 times. Is it a letter of invitation, is it a letter threatening? Because in Khmer language, when you start using adjectives three times, it’s a form of threat. I felt very angry.
With them gone, it was as if we had just come out of the Khmer Rouge again. People in the hotel were smiling, relaxing now that the Khmer Rouge were gone.
On my way back to Phnom Penh, I got many calls from reporters: They wanted to get details of my encounter with Ieng Sary. The Daily had actually published the letter I had sent as a precaution.
Then I got a call from a Cambodian in United States who told me, “[c]oward, why didn’t you kill Ieng Sary?!? You should have shot him.” The man said he had lost his mother and several family members during the Khmer Rouge regime. I told him that, first of all, I did not carry a gun, and secondly, I advocated a process of justice: I did not want to do what he did to us.
Then when I returned to Phnom Penh, I saw that all newspapers had covered my encounter with Ieng Sary. He would later be tried at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal for crimes against humanity; he died in detention in 2013 before the verdict was rendered.
In the 2000s and the early 2010s, I often went to Sihanoukville.
Like other NGOs and businesses, I would take my whole staff there for holidays, for annual meetings. I put them on a big local boat to go to the islands off the coast so we could explore them. We swam in the middle of the ocean. And then we would watch the sunset disappear into the gulf.
We always stayed there at least two nights, the whole staff. It’s so beautiful: I wanted my staff to really know the sight. And by then, there were many inexpensive places to stay.
Cambodians don’t like to stay only two people in a room. I would pay for two rooms for four people and one room would stay empty. Cambodians enjoy staying together: They hang out, they play cards, they eat together, they watch football together. I think Cambodians are still very collective, they are still attached to their roots.
As many Cambodians started going to Sihanoukville, you could see fortune tellers by the ocean, kids selling papayas or pineapples, and adults selling crafts.
Cambodians learned about swimwear and taking long walks on the beach, all those things that two decades of war and conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s had prevented them from doing.
The beach belonged to them. You could see the change. Sellers started to carry beach clothes and merchandize that would appeal to a Cambodian clientele and not only to visitors.
Then, the authorities talked of keeping the beach clean, having the food outlets some distance from the water. And then bus service started.
I always wished my team could go by plane there. Because I believe that If Cambodians can see and explore their country from the ocean to the sky, they will look after it, they will protect it.
So, I have always encouraged my staff to get to know their own country so they can have the courage—even though it’s a challenge at times to protect it—to do so because it is so beautiful, you know.
Even today, as soon as the COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted and people could travel again, I started sending staff members to various locations. I want to tell them: You must see your own country because it is YOUR country, you know.
A few weeks ago, that is, in October 2021, I decided to go to Sihanoukville with some of my staff to see the changes I had heard had taken place in and around the city. Due mainly to the pandemic, I had not been there since 2019.
When I arrived, I felt so empty, just empty. I could not breathe. What I knew of Sihanoukville no longer existed. I couldn’t feel the breeze.
Then I sort of questioned myself, what’s wrong with me. At first, I didn’t know what was going on. With every move of the car, my heart would jump out of my chest. I was disoriented, trying to figure out what that intersection was, where this street led. Every move was a question for me to answer.
Then I got fed up with myself: Why am I asking so many questions, this is Sihanoukville.
Most buildings we saw were unfinished and empty. People told me that, due to COVID-19, the investors—mostly Chinese—had left but were now coming back one by one.
The buildings that were finished were mainly hotels and casinos. No bank, multinational or business building—at least that I could see.
It felt empty in spite of all these buildings. Empty in the way that one loses one’s sense of belonging. It looks like somewhere else but not Cambodia: The street does not belong to you any longer.
Still, they seemed to be using the old masterplan of the city, which goes back to the 1960s, and that they have just widened streets to turn many into boulevards.
At a hotel restaurant, the Chinese seemed to stay among themselves. One member of my staff who speaks Chinese was seated in the Chinese section, while we were later put in another. Even toothpicks and napkins were imported. They use their own products.
There was no Kampot pepper or other Cambodian supplies. Maybe this is premature, and they will eventually use Cambodian products, but this is an issue that must be raised.
As for the public beach, there still is one where people can swim but it is further away. We were actually told that that public beach had been sold and that the company owning it may eventually turn it private.
But these were rumors: Let’s assume that the Cambodian government has made sure there will always be a public beach in Sihanoukville.
And that Cambodians will have the chance to enjoy it.
At the hotel where we stayed, many staff members had come from elsewhere in the country to work, having lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Their dream today has become survival.
By what we heard, there was little or no training at hotels as guests who came to gamble only require basic service.
One food server kept looking at the gulf, mesmerized. When I asked her about it, she told me she was from Pursat Province and had never seen the ocean.
What the future will hold for Sihanoukville
While I worked as an election officer for UNTAC, I met Ted Ngoy who had launched the Free Development Republican Party. He was a Cambodian who had lived through the Khmer Rouge regime, arrived as a refugee in the United States in 1985, made a fortune with a donut chain, lost it gambling, and yet had sponsored more than 100 Cambodian refugee families to the United States in the late 1980s—a documentary film on him entitled “The Donut King: the rags to riches story of a poor immigrant that changed the world” was released in the United States in 2020 and is available online.
During the electoral campaign in 1993, Ted would always say that, if he was elected, he would turn Sihanoukville into another Hong Kong, one of the biggest centers for economic growth in Southeast Asia.
Because of Ted Ngoy and his dream, because of Ieng Sary and the fears he had instantly brought back, and because of the beauty that had taken my breath away when I first saw its beach in 1992, Sihanoukville is a mix of contradictory memories and feelings for me.
And as I saw recently, it now is another world. And that’s why it bothered me when I was there recently: It now is another world but yet to be defined.
Still, I was able to find the road up that mountain where I had gone on my first visit as a UNTAC electoral officer. It’s still untouched, that mountain. It now stands in the middle of the city but it has not been altered.
If King Norodom Sihanouk was alive today, I wonder what he would say.
Youk Chhang was interviewed by journalist Michelle Vachon
Note: Information on Sihanoukville in the 1950s and 1960s can be found in the Queen Mother Library that was set up by Documentation Center of Cambodia in 2020 with the support of the United States Embassy and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Cambodia. Located a short distance from Independence Monument off Street 19, it contains a large number of files of and about King Norodom Sihanouk over several decades — donated by Dr. Julio A. Jeldres.